COVID-19 has forced some major workplace safety changes. Now Health and Safety personnel need to ask: does everyone doing work onsite understand these measures? The difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ involves a well-considered permit to work system.
A formal permit to work (PTW) system documents what work is happening, when and where. A workflow tracks permits from issue through to close. It helps communicate hazard controls to ensure a safe work environment.
With many businesses reopening, safety personnel must review previously sufficient programs to contend with the new virus threat. That includes risk assessments, inspections, and permit to work requirements.
Here are three considerations your permit to work system must address to stay effective in the ‘new normal’.
1. Adjusting your permit to work system to remote work
As COVID-19 is still a risk, many workplaces are not bringing back the entirety of their staff at once.
For example, employees that can work from home should continue doing so. Additionally, other companies have implemented staggered shifts, rotating their staff to keep their personnel levels between 30-50%.
The truth is, we might not see a lot of our co-workers for some time still. This doesn’t just lead to a lack of water cooler conversations, but also impacts the timely approval of safe work permits.
Especially when using a paper-based system, bureaucratic and administrative hold-ups for permit to work approval are not uncommon.
Permits must be signed off by the issuing authority with a physical inspection of the work location. However, getting the right document to the right authority at the right time is challenging if said authority is not onsite.
The obvious solution is to invest in permit to work software. This would automate notifications, reminders, and the approval workflow. That would ensure permits are on track without having to wait on someone being physically at work.
Furthermore, it minimizes physical contact by avoiding the use of printers, scanners, paper and envelopes. These are all touchpoints with the potential to spread the coronavirus at work.
Demand for permit to work software has been growing as more organizations realize the benefits of managing their permit to work systems in real-time and increasing the speed at which the approval process is completed.
However, if you can’t invest in permit to work software, there are other things you can do.
Depending on shift schedules, the authorizer may delegate multiple competent persons to authorize certain types of PTWs. This means an authority is always available onsite to inspect the work area and sign off on physical permits.
In light of the limited workforce, more consideration is required on how permits will manually pass from one authority to another during the process.
If you are after a more complete and permanent solution, permit to work software provides several tools to facilitate timely approval of permits. With Pro-Sapien, it is possible to request, approve and manage permits through Office 365.
Furthermore, authorized personnel can view open permits geographically across sites. Since travel is limited for the foreseeable future, having the ability to check in on numerous facilities remotely will save a significant amount of time and effort.
2. Updating permit to work system requirements
The most recent UK government guidelines for the return to work outlines that businesses should not only conduct a COVID-19 Risk Assessment of the workplace, but also share it with their staff.
Similarly, permit to work systems will have to consider the new risks identified for certain tasks. They will have to include safety precautions to curb the spread in their forms.
Many workplaces have been closed for weeks, which means there could be a backlog of non-routine work that needs to take place—adding to the urgency of getting permit to work requirements up to date.
This doesn’t mean simply adding more checkboxes to permit lists. It is up to Health and Safety professionals to impart to permit issuers a holistic view of the new hazards that must be monitored.
Updates to permit to work checklists should include listing the appropriate PPE needed to protect workers.
Perhaps tasks that did not traditionally require PPE now involve at least the use of facemasks—whether mandated by your own policies or by local law. Or, perhaps there is now a limited number of participants, therefore altering responsibilities.
For example, in a confined space permit, it may be worth requiring the entrant(s), supervisor or stand by person to be confirmed as trained in COVID-19 prevention measures.
Particularly for confined space entry, the heightened risk is two-fold:
- Limited airflow allows virus droplets breathed into the air to linger for longer; and
- Limited space may prohibit physical distancing between entrants.
Health and safety professionals should consider what controls can be put in place to minimize the potential for harm during confined space work. That could include an engineering control like limiting confined space work to one entrant at a time. This should also be accompanied by PPE such as face masks or face shields.
Undoubtedly, updating permit to work requirements is easier to do when configurable permit to work software is in place.
3. Managing higher risk associated with temporary staff
Many EHS departments are working against the clock to create an actionable plan for the safe return to work.
However, the halt in operations has unfortunately meant lay-offs for many organizations. This undoubtedly affects the speed at which companies can approve permits. Remaining workers will pick up the slack, managing work they are unfamiliar with, leading to heightened risk of harm.
On the other hand, one Pro-Sapien client that took part in our return to work research has hired more temporary staff to compensate for increased sick leave rates. They are not alone, as many companies increase reliance on contractors in response to volatile demand.
However, Health and Safety professionals know that temporary workers and external contractors are at a higher risk suffering a workplace incident. Since permit to work is a key communication tool, particularly for contractors, now is a pivotal time to review it’s efficacy.
Your permit to work system’s value as an added layer of risk management now plays a vital role.
The pandemic has put the spotlight on the Health and Safety community, but it is difficult to modify a years-old system in a matter of weeks.
In this case, it always is more challenging to organize and manage a paper trail than its digital equivalent. We lose a lot of time in administrating and organizing physical documents, not to mention the storage space used up.
Workers might need to refer back to permits to check and even modify them if there is an time extension to the work or a change of circumstances, therefore access should be made readily available.
For a more complete solution, one of EHS software’s biggest advantages is the more transparent management of all Health and Safety documents. Pro-Sapien’s Permit to Work module enables managers and issue authorities to see all open permits and active non-routine work taking place at a location.
Furthermore, user-permissions make sure the right permit is accessible by the appropriate person, who receives notification of any required actions. This automation of notifications, reminders and due dates is what keeps a permit moving to ensure timely completion.
The ‘new normal’ as a hidden opportunity
When the unpredictable happens, one measure of a good safety program is how quickly it can respond and adapt. SARS-CoV-2 is modifying the way we operate and permit to work systems are no exception.
Above, we discussed several ways new risks will affect permit systems. However, there are other impacts that Health and Safety professionals must also consider, including:
- Increase in non-routine work to whip facilities back into shape
- Increase in maintenance jobs postponed due to lockdown
- Heightened risk of staffing changes
Regardless of what kind of system your business uses for permit to work, this is a good time to review where its strengths lie and what could be improved.
If you are working with a paper system, you might consider shifting to a digital solution to better manage permits. Software alleviates many of the trials of remote work and shift staggering, with automated and trackable approval workflows, as well as easier access to permit libraries.
Although challenging, the current times present an opportunity to update and renew.
Post-pandemic, it will be harder than ever for executives to object to your proposal for new Safety software.
Indeed, demand for permit to work software is growing—and now is the perfect time for modernization.
The pandemic is causing a pause in commercial activity for the next couple of quarters. But once the pause is over, the underlying fundamentals for moving to digital at scale are still positive.
Thanks for your comment! You are very right, over the next months we will likely see some underlying benefits of changes implemented after the pause.